Portuguese Surfing

by Nick Burton

"What do you mean it doesn't have a roof rack?!" Arriving at Faro airport early on a December morning, the first group found that our travel plans had unravelled slightly. The kayaks were kept well out of sight of the hire car office and visions of a DIY foam-and-strap job were soon forming. Fortunately this scenario was avoided and the hire-car company wisely coughed up a suitably equipped vehicle, with a second car made ready for the rest of the group arriving 2 hours later. Even more surprising, the rack was good enough to take 5 boats without collapse (unlike the previous year's effort, but that's another story!).

And so began our 2003 surf trip to Portugal. Boasting the most westerly point in Europe and with an ocean floor rising steeply from the mid-Atlantic, Portugal offers powerful surf and a year-round Mediterranean climate. A year earlier 5 of us had made the same journey and come back to the UK raving about a cheap surfing trip with big waves, nasty beatings and warm water in December. Good days at Saunton faded in comparison and Easyjet's latest sale meant that our airfares were, in some cases, less than the diesel needed to get to the south-west from London. No surprise then that this year the group had easily doubled to 10, as various friends of friends tagged along.

Surfing the west coast of Portugal is logistically very easy. An early morning 3 hour flight from the UK got us to Faro, on the Algarve, before lunchtime (making use of those budget airfares). The eternal travelling-paddlers worry about getting boats on the plane caused lots of pre-trip discussions about the best way to ensure we got all the kit there for as little as possible, but eventually we decided the best policy was just to turn up and engage blag-mode. Flying out from both East Midlands Stansted, both groups were read the riot act about cargo fees, and both used varying amounts of tactics and charm to successfully avoid them. Total cargo fee for 10kayaks = 0. Result!

Being a major summer tourist and golfing destination, the Algarve is well equipped with hire car companies and apart from the roof rack hiccup, things went smoothly. The existing motorway along the width of the Algarve has recently been extended to past Lagos, and you can be on a west-coast beach within a 75min drive.

The previous year we'd been lucky (or not, depending on your point of view) and arrived to find big, clean 8ft+ surf rolling in at Arrifana, a bay known for its gnarly point break but also offering a safer beach break. At this size, the beach break has a steep, but not too fast, left-hander that dies out into a strong conveyor belt of a rip current. For us it was brilliant, TIE-fighter drop-ins (see Note1), crazy flat spins, some painful mistakes and if you got the take-off position right, there was the chance of a very small, but exhilarating tube ride exiting in the rip current, handily placed to carry you out back in safety without having to worry about the next incoming set squashing you.

Unfortunately, this years trip couldn't quite live up to that reputation. All the forecasts, wave models and weather charts had been consulted in the run up to the trip and we'd missed the big swell that hit the coast a few days before we arrived. Still, some of the group were probably a bit happier for that and we knew that were in for a few days of fun and some good weather.

After a beer and food stop, we ended Day 1 with an evening session at Monte Clerigo. A wave-cut platform just offshore was kicking up some steep 5ft waves out back, although only a few of us made it there for some interesting, if short, rides on the big sets. Not exactly huge, but big enough to generate some respect, especially when the tide dropped and the first rocks started to appear. Extreme slalom was the order of the day, as at least some of us dodged rocks in a frantic attempt to save the 3 fins that wed recently fitted to our plastic boats (yet another story). The rest were having more than enough fun surviving the confused mess inshore, as the swell seemed to wrap onto the platform from different sides, and as the last paddlers got off the water in the dark, we'd already notched up a few good beatings and swimmer #1.

Day 2 set the tone for the rest of the trip. Get up without any real urgency, faff, eat breakfast, faff, collect gear off the kit tree, faff, etc. (Ok, I'm guilty too!). Despite the forecasts of a smaller swell, our eternal optimism kicked in and we did a high speed tour of the major breaks in the area (treating the hire cars with the full respect that they deserved). After wasting an hour on the futile search for magically clean 6-8ft, we came to our senses and settled for the usual beach.

The town of Carrapateira is about 10km south of Arrifana and has two beaches on opposite sides of a headland, giving the opportunity to make the best out of the prevailing winds and swell. We started the day with a few hours at the south-west facing beach of Praia do Amado with blue skies, warm sun and a really fun and clean 4-5ft. At least a few people suffered the indignity of a blown deck, but the threat of my camera seemed to motivate them into staying in their boats until the very last no photographic evidence of swimming on this trip! As the tide dropped, the waves became steeper and more confused, jacking up in unexpected places. The ratio of beatings to rides got a little high for most, so it was an easy group decision to leave while the going was good and head back to base for beers or an evening surf back at Monte Clerigo.

Days 3 and 4 stuck to this formula, and we spent both of them at Praia do Bordeira, the north-facing beach on the other side of the Carrapateira headland. As the weekend went on the surf dropped off and the conditions didn't look like much from the headland car park, but we were determined to make the most of the short time available. Getting on at midday, we were surprised to find a few cheeky 4ft+ waves amongst the regular 3-4ft swell and before we knew it, it was 6pm and the sun was setting idyllically over the headland with the moon rising over the beach. Apart from a brief lunch and beach-rugby break, wed managed to easily spend 4-5 hours each day on the water with only 3 boardies paddling out for the last hour of daylight. The sky was blue, a 2km-wide sandy beach was all ours and it was 20C in December. Saunton eat your heart out!

Note1: TIE-fighter drop-in. A very late, steep take-off straight down a large face where all hope of gaining the shoulder or pulling off the back has been lost. This often causes a high-pitched screeching noise from the boat (or paddler!), similar to that made by Star Wars TIE-fighters. Usually accompanied (afterwards) by a maniacal grin and shouts of It was as big as a house!

Details: The group consisted of Nick Burton, Neil Davey, Blair Woodward, Simon Hicks, Tim Sadler, Jim Bonney, Mike Redding, Sam Clemmens, Neil Peck and Scott May. They flew Easyjet to Faro from Stansted East Midlands, and rented cars from the cheapest company they could find. Accommodation was provided by Al Sian at Casa Linda, a self-catering villa near the coast at Aljezur that caters for surfers (and even goatboaters) during the winter months. Total cost for 4 days surfing in the sun was a lightweight 150 each.

Useful web links:
Forecast sites:

Portuguese Surf Guides

Casa Linda:

Report and photos Nick Burton.